Home Travel Tips 20 Widespread Travel Scams and How You Can Avoid Them

20 Widespread Travel Scams and How You Can Avoid Them

written by Webjet Australia January 2, 2019
Market pick pocket

Travelling is both a thrilling and rewarding experience. And more people than ever are travelling the globe to tick off bucketlist experiences and take in some of the world’s most famous sites, cultures and destinations. An unfortunate downside to travelling however, are those that look to take advantage of jet-setting tourists. No matter what destination you’re headed to, being aware of common travel scams and potential cons is an easy way to make sure your holiday goes off without a hitch. From some of the oldest tricks in the book, to more inventive dupes; we’ve put together a list of 20 of the most widespread travel scams and how you can avoid them.

The one with the ‘free’ bracelet

One moment you’re admiring Paris’ Notre Dame or La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, and then you find yourself being approached by an overly friendly stranger, who aggressively straps a cheap ‘friendship’ bracelet around your wrist. You’ll be requested to pay for this keepsake, even though you didn’t ask for it. And, as the bracelet is fastened so tightly, refusing payment or removing the bracelet can be tricky. This tactic can also be used to distract you while you are pickpocketed.

How to avoid:
Be aware of those around you when you’re visiting major tourist attractions. If you are approached, kindly inform them that you already have enough friends or that you can be friends without the need of a bracelet. Anyone offering you a keepsake or free gift generally has an ulterior motive.

Where it happens:
This travel scam is frequently seen in Paris, Rome, Barcelona and Cairo.

The one with the taxi

There are a variety of ways to be scammed in a taxi. One of the most widespread involves the driver insisting that their meter is broken and a fare can be determined upon arrival at your destination. Another trick is being told that the hotel you booked is now closed but never fear, because your driver knows “a better place”. In some cases, this alternative accommodation is owned by one of their friends or business contacts, and the driver will receive a commission if you end up staying there.

How to avoid:
Have a basic understanding of the travel costs, distances from airports, and official companies that run the taxi services in your holiday destination. If the driver insists the meter is broken, it is often best to walk away. The driver’s reluctance to lose the fare can, in some cases, lead them to agree to a set fare or fix the meter. Also make sure to only travel in official taxis from the airport. Finally, take advantage of driving apps or pre-download an area on Google Maps prior to your arrival, so you’re not relying on a driver’s knowledge of the most direct – and cost-effective – route.

Where it happens:
Almost everywhere, though it can be especially prevalent in parts of South America, Asia and Europe.

The one with the petition

This scam happens when you’re approached by someone holding a clipboard and wearing a legitimate-looking charity shirt. The scammer may pretend to have a hearing impairment and can signal for you to sign a petition in support of a charity. The petition will have a list of other signatures, and each name will be accompanied by a dollar amount to signify how much each person has donated. Once you’ve signed, you’ll likely be asked to also contribute a donation. This scam works by swindling you into donating as you hope to avoid a public scene.

How to avoid:
Don’t sign the petition. Ask to see their identification as a part of a charity organisation. Impersonating a charity official is an illegal offence, so you can also report this to local police.

Where it happens:
Commonly seen in France, Italy and Spain.

The one with the ring

In this scenario, you’re asked by a stranger if you dropped a ring as you were walking along the street, stepping off the metro, or leaving a cafe. While the ring isn’t yours, the stranger insists that you keep this expensive piece of jewellery. The moment you accept this wonderful gift, they demand payment for it. What they don’t tell you is that the ring is actually worthless, yet the money you hand over to them most certainly isn’t.

How to avoid:
Flatly refuse the ring. The scammer will insist you take it, but stand your ground and tell them you have no intention of keeping the ring. This situation may also be used as a distraction for the scammer’s accomplices to pickpocket you.

Where it happens:
Especially popular in Paris.

Gold wedding ring

Image Credit: Alan Levine / CC0 1.0.

The one with the stained shirt

This one usually takes place in crowded public areas. A stranger will offer to kindly remove the bird poo or smudge on your clothing that you previously hadn’t noticed. As it turns out, the same individual with the cloth (or their accomplice) was the one who spilled something on you as you photographed sights or read a map. After cleaning off the mark, the scammer will ask for a small donation for their time. If they don’t ask for this donation, they are most likely causing a distraction for you to get pickpocketed.

How to avoid:
Take care in crowded spaces and be cautious of anyone wanting to brush your clothes or claiming there is something on your back.

Where it happens:
The stained shirt scam is seen throughout South America and is common in Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires.

The one with the fake WiFi

Travelling for modern tourists is now a continual search for paradise; a WiFi hotspot. Finding one provides an opportunity to post that perfect selfie or update friends and family about your travels. The search for WiFi in a foreign land can be a long and infuriating experience, and scammers have been known to set up unsecured hotspots in an attempt to access passwords and account details.

How to avoid:
Always use a secure network, or one owned by the restaurant, hotel or venue you are visiting. If you are unsure about which networks are secure, ask a member of staff for all the details you need.

Where it happens:
This scam is played out in many different locations around the world, including Italy and India.

Wifi mobile phone cafe

The one with the fake police

This one usually involves a fake police officer accusing you of a crime you didn’t commit. The officers may demand money or your passport in order for you to avoid any further sanctions. Handing over your valuable documents can result in you having to pay for its return.

How to avoid:
If you’re in a safe public space, don’t be afraid to call out their bluff. Ask the ‘officers’ if they can take you to the nearest police station so you can sort out the situation. If they aren’t police officers, they’ll probably leave you alone after mentioning going to the station. Much like Frodo’s ring in the Lord of the Rings, your passport is your most precious possession when travelling overseas. Do not give it up to someone if you’re not absolutely sure of who they are.

Where it happens:
This scam is particularly common throughout Eastern Europe and Asia. Cities such as Budapest and Bangkok have a high number of cases reported each year.

The one with the dirty water

Not so much a scam, but more of deception to be on the lookout for. This racket sees local vendors collect used water bottles from the trash, then fill with tap water and re-market as fresh chilled water bottles. In some developing countries, it’s advised to avoid drinking the local tap water in order to prevent ingesting harmful bacteria.

How to avoid:
This one is pretty simple to avoid. Make sure the bottle is completely sealed before purchasing. Bottles could be tightly closed, so listen out for the seal crack before taking your first sip.

Where it happens:
Only a hazard in destinations with water safety issues, including Greece and Italy, as well as most of Asia and South America.

Bottle water glass

Image Credit: Juanedc / CC by 2.0.

The one with the flying baby

Imagine this: you’re admiring the grandeur of St. Peter’s Basilica and out of the corner of your eye you see what looks like a baby being thrown towards you. You only have a second to decide if you drop your belongs to catch it, or if you let the baby hit the ground. As you assist in the ensuing chaos, you realise two things: the baby is actually a toy and you have been pickpocketed.

How to avoid:
We aren’t saying don’t catch a flying baby. Just be mindful of those around you should you decide to rescue said baby, and don’t leave your valuables unattended as the situation unfolds.

Where it happens:
This scam has a reputation as being a bit of an urban legend, but reports have been made of the baby toss occurring in Rome and Barcelona.

The one with no prices

You’re walking along the street when a lovely waiter holding a menu comes up to you and invites you inside their restaurant. You might be feeling peckish so you sit down and are handed the menu, only to see that there are no prices next to any of the dishes. You may be in a relatively cheap area, so you ignore this misprint and continue to order and eat. The bill arrives at the table and so does that gut-wrenching feeling that you’ve been swindled into overpaying for a mediocre meal.

How to avoid:
In most countries, not providing a price on the menu is in fact illegal. If you can’t locate the prices on the menu, just ask the waiter. If they don’t give you the price, they don’t get your business. You can also report this to the local authorities.

Where it happens:
Menus without prices are common in restaurants across Italy and Spain.

Paella Spain meal restaurant

Image Credit: vx_lentz / CC BY SA 2.0.

The one with the fake restaurant voucher

This one involves someone giving you a restaurant voucher to use at a nearby eatery. After you tuck into your delicious discounted meal and go to use the voucher upon paying, you’re told that it has expired or is no longer valid. You’re then left to pay a hefty bill for your meal.

How to avoid:
The easiest way to avoid this scam is to confirm with the restaurant before ordering that the voucher is valid. If it’s not, leave. No harm done.

Where it happens:
Common in both Europe and Asia. Be mindful in Italy, France and Thailand.

The one with the group photo

This may sound obvious, but it’s still worth mentioning. This con occurs when you ask a stranger to take a photo of you and your friends or family. As everyone is perfecting their poses and finding their best angles, the budding photographer has taken off with your smartphone, camera or equipment.

How to avoid:
Consider who you give your camera or mobile phone too. Asking someone who is part of another tourist group to take a photo might be a wiser choice than relying on a solo stranger. You can then return the favour by offering to take their photo.

Where it happens:
Reports have been made of this scam occurring throughout Europe, especially around the big-name attractions.

Photography man camera

Image Credit: Garry Knight / CC by 2.0.

The one with the free holiday

The age-old adage about something looking too good to be true comes into play here. In this situation, you are offered a ‘free’ all-inclusive holiday by a company you haven’t heard of before. The ramifications of taking up this generous offer vary, but can include having to pay in order to claim your non-existent reward.

How to avoid:
A big red flag for this scam is the deal or prize not mentioning specific hotel, resort or airline details.  There may also be no mention of travel dates. If you do want to take up an offer of a ‘free’ or even heavily discounted holiday, make sure you read all of the terms and conditions (if these are available to you at all).

Where it happens:
Online.

Beach holiday palm trees ocean

Image Credit: James Honeyball / CC by SA 2.0.

The one with the Trojan Horse

Those familiar with the ancient Greek story might be able to piece this one together. Essentially, thieves pretend to be a ventriloquist dummy and hide in a suitcase. After the suitcase is placed in the baggage compartment of a train or bus, the thief emerges and begins stealing items of value from neighbouring bags. The thief then reseals themselves back into the case.

How to avoid:
Keep all valuable items (passports, cameras, laptops) on you as you’re travelling between destinations, especially if you have to store your luggage in a compartment or area that is out of sight of your seat. Where possible, travel next to or near your bag.

Where it happens:
This scam is relatively new, however reports of it occurring in parts of Western Europe, particularly Spain, are on the rise.

The one with the milk

This one involves a deceitful collaboration. Largely seen in Southeast Asia, this scam sees a child ask if you are able to help them buy some unusually expensive milk from the local shop. After you hand over some notes or coins, the child later returns to the shop with the bottle of milk, splits the profits with the shopkeeper and carries out the scam all over again with another unsuspecting tourist.

How to avoid:
Although quite specific, this scam makes you aware of what could happen if you’re not careful. The milk is arbitrary, so just be mindful of basic foods being exceedingly overpriced.

Where it happens:
This scam is popular in many Asian countries, including Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.

Milk bottles

The one with the fake wake up call

For this scam, you’ll receive a call from the hotel or accommodation’s concierge informing you that there has been a systems failure and your wake up call has been cancelled. They ask if you could politely provide them with your bank details over the phone so they can re-process your request. The catch here is that the person on the other end of the phone is not the real concierge and you’ve just given your bank details to a scammer.

How to avoid:
Don’t give your bank details over the phone. Most hotels wouldn’t require immediate payment for a wake up call, if any.

Where it happens:
This one isn’t location specific and occurs across the world.

The one with the airport security

This one involves someone cutting in front of you as you queue to go through airport security. This line-jumper will set the metal detector off as they pass through. As this causes delays at your end, the person’s accomplice is taking off with your expensive goods at the other end.

How to avoid:
The best way to deal with this one would be to keep an eye on your possessions once they go through to the other side of security. Usually it’s possible to see them go through to the other side.

Where it happens:
Keep an eye out for this travel scam throughout South America.

Airport scanner line

Image Credit: David Prasad / CC by SA 2.0.

The one with the rosemary

This is another instance of someone offering you a ‘free’ gift. This time, it’s a sprig of rosemary and it will bring you peace, friendship and just about everything in between. The moment you accept the rosemary, a payment will be requested.

How to avoid:
As with the ‘friendship’ bracelet scam, simply ignore the person with the rosemary. They may try to rest the rosemary on your shoulder or force it into your hand, but it is best to just let the sprig fall onto the floor and then walk away.

Where it happens:
Watch out for this scam in Madrid and New Delhi.

The one with the slow change

As far as scams go, this one is just plain annoying. After paying for a meal or your shopping with cash, the shopkeeper is now taking longer than may be reasonable to return your change. The intention here is that you’ll lose patience and hurry off, leaving them with most of your change.

How to avoid:
If you can wait that little bit longer for your change, then do.

Where it happens:
Throughout Europe and Asia.

The one with the fake accommodation

After scouring the internet looking for that perfect hotel deal, you finally find it! As you arrive at your destination eager to check out your accommodation, you realise that the hotel or apartment doesn’t in fact exist. Although unwanted at any time of the year, this scam can be especially prevalent during major sporting events and festivals as people are more desperate to find accommodation.

How to avoid:
Book accommodation on trusted and legitimate websites, or through verified online travel agents.

Where it happens:
Everywhere and to anyone with internet access.

Lastly…

The best advice for avoiding scams while travelling is to stay vigilant. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. If someone is offering you a gift for ‘free’, there is likely to be strings attached. If someone says your hotel is closed, it is also worth double checking. If someone says their taxi meter is broken, it probably isn’t either. Of course, travel scams don’t affect everyone, but they are a friendly reminder of the importance of staying alert when travelling and doing your research before you leave home.

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Feature Image Credit: AntoineMeu / CC by SA 2.0.